What To Do When A Colleague Overshares

This week, we answer the reader question: “How do you deal with a work ‘friend’ who treats you like their personal therapist?”

Dear Lifehacker,

I work as a host in a popular restaurant. I often work shifts with a guy I’ll call Brad. He is about my age (mid 20s) but we have very different backgrounds. I went to school, got a grad degree, and live with my partner. Brad has a kid with his high school girlfriend, just bought a house with her, and they’re now engaged.

The problem is, Brad hates his fiance. Every story he tells ends up being: “My fiance is so incompetent, I have to do all the work.” She “can’t be trusted” to do the laundry. She uses too many pans when she cooks. She doesn’t parent well, so Brad comes home to a kid that won’t listen. She left the back door unlocked so Brad yelled at her that if the dog runs away, he won’t help look for it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working with him for six months and I don’t think he’s ever said her actual name.

I’m not here to judge. I know that having a preschool-aged kid is no picnic. And I’m sure that this isn’t the life he imagined for himself. But I also feel really, really bad for the kid, having grown up myself in a household where my parents Did Not Like Each Other, but stayed together because That’s What You Do. And a lot of the stories he tells me are righteously punitive from his point of view, but definitely sound abusive to me.

I’ve tried pushing back on some of the things (like “I mean, I use a lot of pans when I cook” or “I’m pretty sure not listening is just a feature of preschoolers”) but he always has a response that brings it back to his fiancée’s incompetence.

What do I do? I don’t think I can really say: “Hey, uh, that sounds pretty abusive. Have you considered… NOT marrying this woman?” But I don’t love listening to him go off on her in ways that he clearly thinks are reasonable but set my Spidey senses tingling. Thanks, Fed Up

Dear FD,

You need to establish some boundaries with Brad, and I’d say the sooner the better.

At best, he’s using you to vent, which is just rude and self-centered in general. Plus he seems to be causing you outright discomfort and stress. If he needs counseling, he should get counseling. Nobody should expect a colleague to listen to one’s personal-life kvetching and woes endlessly.

At worst, I think it’s quite possible that Brad either has some personal interest in you, or is headed in that direction. And believe me, you do not want to wait for the moment when he says: “My fiancée just doesn’t get me … not like you do.”

If that scenario, however far-fetched, makes you feel clammy: Good! Because I think you should cut this off.

Be gentle—at first

This doesn’t have to be a confrontation. Start by simply changing the subject whenever starts in on his unnamed partner. Think up various other topics in advance; work-related matters are best, but your latest Netflix binge can be ok, too. Don’t bother with transitions; just introduce a new subject. Or excuse yourself to go deal with some other task. Bottom line: express as little interest as possible in his home-life complaints.

It sounds like Brad is the type who might not get the message, so prepare yourself for the next step. Say something like: “Would you mind if we talk about subjects other than your partner? I know parenting is hard, but it’s starting to make me uncomfortable.”

You could add something like your comment above about how his stories make you think of how your parents didn’t always get along, etc. Personally, I wouldn’t go there, because I think it just invites further entanglement. And as a rule, I think the idea that we need to be friends with our colleagues is overrated.

Give yourself a break

Maybe that all sounds a bit rude—or maybe callous. But you should be very cautious about getting drawn into feeling a sense of obligation to address the personal family dramas of someone you’ve known for six months, solely because you work together.

Get some perspective. Gradually, but determinedly, shift the course of this relationship away from being defined by you listening to and worrying about Brad and his problems. You wouldn’t let a real friend treat you that way. So you certainly shouldn’t let a work “friend” do so.